By Andrew Vanacore, New Orleans Advocate
State Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, has filed a bill ahead of this year’s legislative session that could be a first step toward merging the New Orleans Police Department and the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office.
It is a long-shot proposal, though it might at least stir a renewed discussion about how the city’s law enforcement agencies are organized.
Morrell’s bill would create an 11-member panel called the Orleans Parish Law Enforcement Streamline and Accountability Commission. The commission would study several options, including merging the two agencies, creating an elected head of the Police Department or changing the way law enforcement budgets and funding streams work.
The commission, to meet every other month, would include designees from the Legislature, the Mayor’s Office, the Police Department, the sheriff and various local civic groups. It would have until March 2017 to report its findings and make any recommendations, perhaps putting any decision beyond Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s term in office, which ends in May 2018.
In an interview Thursday, Morrell acknowledged that merging the two agencies would be an enormous undertaking, practically and politically.
But he argued that New Orleans taxpayers aren’t getting their money’s worth from the existing arrangement, where the police force answers to City Hall and an independently elected sheriff manages the local jail.
“We’re paying for two different police departments, and only one (of them) polices,” Morrell said, alluding to the fact that Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s office is tasked mainly with operating Orleans Parish Prison, rather than patrolling or investigating crimes. “The system has been broken since the 1970s.”
Morrell pointed to Jefferson Parish, where the Sheriff’s Office acts as the police force for most of the parish, bolstered by the separate departments in municipalities such as Kenner, Harahan and Westwego. “We’re the only parish that elects a warden,” Morrell said.
Landrieu’s office, which wasn’t involved in writing Morrell’s bill, declined to say whether the mayor supports the idea of a merger.
“Public safety remains this administration’s top priority, and we are always interested in starting conversations that could result in more efficient and effective local government,” Landrieu spokesman Bradley Howard said in an email. “However, as this legislation was introduced today, we are just beginning to carefully review and study the proposal.”
Any kind of merger would face stiff obstacles. For one, Gusman, whose office declined to comment, would certainly have an incentive to fight the idea. If carried out, it would most likely put him out of a job that he could otherwise hope to keep for life.
His predecessor, Charles Foti, ran the agency for three decades. When Foti attempted a comeback last year, Gusman easily beat him out for re-election, despite months of negative publicity about conditions at the jail.
There could also be complicated legal hurdles. Both the Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office are under federal, court-ordered reform plans, known as consent decrees. The decrees spell out detailed, mandatory improvements for both agencies, and any overhaul in how they’re governed would have to carefully hew to both agreements.
Still, the existing arrangement has caused headaches for decades, in large part because the city is required to fund the jail but has little say over how the sheriff runs it.
That has meant a perennial struggle between the Sheriff’s Office and City Hall, with Landrieu’s administration complaining that it must hand over huge sums without knowing exactly how the sheriff will spend them.
Standing between the two sides now is a federal judge in charge of the OPP consent decree with the power to force the city’s purse strings open to pay for jail expenses.
“There’s a serious misalignment between powers and responsibilities,” said Janet Howard, who as president of the Bureau of Governmental Research would have a seat on Morrell’s proposed commission. “The city is responsible for picking up the tab for inmates, and the jail is run by someone other than the city. This is clearly creating serious problems.”
Howard said she wasn’t sure if a merger is the solution. She said BGR studied that idea back in the mid-1990s and concluded it wasn’t feasible, but she noted that much time has passed.
The debate over Morrell’s bill will come amid a backdrop of mostly sobering news on the crime front. Violent offenses have been ticking upward, and the murder rate, which was down sharply over the past few years, has been climbing again in the first few months of 2015.
Another bill authored by Morrell this year aims at boosting police presence in the city by getting various local law enforcement agencies to expand where they conduct patrols.
It would create a board, made up of the mayor and other local officials, tasked with striking deals similar to the one that has paid for extra state troopers to lend a hand in the French Quarter.
Morrell suggested, for instance, that the Harbor Police could patrol on Tchoupitoulas Street or that Levee Police could patrol on Hayne Boulevard.
“There are a lot of people across the city who are not happy about the focus being on the French Quarter and nowhere else,” Morrell said.